Archive for March, 2012

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For Lent, an epiphany

March 29, 2012

Some people seek enlightenment, but I never have. I’ve sought answers, many times. I’ve sought better questions. But I’ve never been confident enough in my own comprehensive abilities to think that I would ever know – or even just feel – the meaning of it all.

And if you think I don’t have a high opinion of my comprehensive abilities, well, you’re wrong. If I am arrogant, that is where I am arrogant.

But in my heart of hearts, I believe that, if there is a deep spiritual understanding to be had, most of us get it in drips and drabs. And that’s when we are really trying. Before Teddy was born and before he took those precious last breaths in my arms, I went through a few searches for meaning – in high school and again in college I tried to figure it out and to reconcile the fact that human beings are subject to such random and intense pains and losses with the faith of my family. I worried away at the ideas of god and mercy and miracles and meaning. These things kept me up at night. I ranted about my loss of sleep and my philosophy professor was amused.

I thought I’d struggled my way to an understanding, that I’d wrestled my angel and deserved to move forward through life with my mind at rest.

I was, not an idiot, but I was thoroughly sheltered and privileged and woefully unaware of what it feels like to share the (not uncommon) fate of losing a child to untimely death. Okay, I was a bit of an idiot.

I thought I’d wrestled with an angel, but as it turned out, I’d been wrestling with a fluffy little bunny in a cheap angel costume, the kind with a plastic mask and a silly tinsel halo. I thought my faith was hard-won. It wasn’t. These days I am so very tired of trying to resuscitate my faith, of trying to find meaning in a world full of stupid, meaningless pain. That sounds really grim, and I’m not a grim or even pessimistic person. I’m fully aware of beauty and kindness, of creativity and caring. I see people making and finding meaning all the time, and I think this is marvelous. Sometimes I even find myself doing it, when I’m not paying attention. But it’s harder than it used to be. And I get tired.

And when I hear someone talking about how God helped them find their perfect new house, or a perfect pair of shoes, steam reliably pours out of my ears. I used to have that. I will never have that again. I’m immune to that kind of faith. I reserve for that kind of faith the same sort of sneer that my darling N, an ex-smoker, gives when we walk through someone else’s cloud of smoke on our way across campus.

I’m a no-easy-answers-please zealot, and this makes looking for answers – not all the answers, not enlightenment, just enough answers to be able to stop banging my head against this wall I’ve created out of my lost faith – really difficult. But I keep looking. I don’t know if it’s stubbornness or simply that I share in this part of the human condition and can’t give it up.

So, a few weeks ago I was catching up on some light reading. Specifically, my favorite online advice columns, which are Savage Love and Dear Sugar. (Tangent: I like advice columns because they make me feel more a part of the human condition while also allowing me to smile knowingly at the human condition. I know it’s bad to be a smug bitch, but sometimes I indulge. I also think there’s something to the art of the advice column that’s mysterious and intangible and wonderful and very daring. It’s very daring to give people advice, don’t you think? To take that particular kind of risk with your own thoughts and words?) It’s a fabulous form of distraction, this kind of reading – for me it’s an almost pure distraction, almost the opposite of what I imagine meditation would be if you were really good at meditation. I was reading through the Dear Sugar Archives, enjoying the sensation of my brain NOT worrying about my family budget, my dead baby, my current lack of sleep, my worries about work, and I accidentally stumbled upon my very own little epiphany.

http://therumpus.net/2011/10/dear-sugar-the-rumpus-advice-column-88-the-human-scale/

There is this:

Countless people have been devastated for reasons that cannot be explained or justified in spiritual terms. To do as you are doing in asking if there were a God why would he let my little girl have to have possibly life threatening surgery?—understandable as that question is—creates a false hierarchy of the blessed and the damned. To use our individual good or bad luck as a litmus test to determine whether or not God exists constructs an illogical dichotomy that reduces our capacity for true compassion. It implies a pious quid pro quo that defies history, reality, ethics, and reason. It fails to acknowledge that the other half of rising—the very half that makes rising necessary—is having first been nailed to the cross.

And then, this:

What if you allowed your God to exist in the simple words of compassion others offer to you? What if faith is the way it feels to lay your hand on your daughter’s sacred body? What if the greatest beauty of the day is the shaft of sunlight through your window? What if the worst thing happened and you rose anyway? What if you trusted in the human scale? What if you listened harder to the story of the man on the cross who found a way to endure his suffering than to the one about the impossible magic of the Messiah? Would you see the miracle in that?

There’s a great deal more to that post. Reading it felt like balm and revelation and relief. I still struggle with faith, but this is a way of looking at faith that makes me believe that faith may be, some day, a possibility. I’m still wrestling, but now I feel like I know better who and what I’m wrestling with.

It occurs to me that many of the bloggers I read who write about faith have written very thoughtfully on these precise topics. Why the words of this particular column, at this particular time, struck such a chord with me – well, perhaps it is partly due to all of the wrestling I’ve been privileged to read about. I’m very grateful to all of you for that.

(And if you’ve made through this incredibly long post, thank you for that, too.)

 

 

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More on princesses (a long post with lots of book lists)

March 16, 2012

N and I talked a bit about princesses a couple of nights ago. I wish we could have talked more because while he teased out a lot of what I was thinking, I’m not sure where he stands on princesses as crazily marketed phenomena, or as blue-blooded realities, or as role models. And I’m curious. I think that, as a daddy, he has fond and positive associations with the word princess. As the daddy of a rainbow baby, I expect these associations may be heightened.

And I don’t want to be unreasonably anti-princess in spite of my knee-jerk reactions, which tend to reveal my inner anti-monarchist. So I’ve been thinking, as I often do, with the help of books. And there are many (many!) children’s books that I love that broaden definitions of girlhood and women by using ideas and images of princesses. So, I came up with a list of my top princess books so far. It’s incomplete and I’m sure I’ve missed some really great ones, but this is a good place for me to start thinking about what I like about princesses.

For little readers & listeners

  • The Paper Bag Princess (Thanks for the reminder, Loribeth!), which is awesome and contains the immortal line, “Ronald, your clothes are really pretty and your hair is very neat. You look like a real prince, but you are a bum.”
  • Sleeping Ugly, by Jane Yolen (more about Jane Yolen later on). This is a great early reader book, funny and sweet and sly without being didactic.

Some of my favorite traditional tales featuring princesses in picture book form

Pedantic Librarian Note: Sometimes we think that all picture books are suitable for very young readers, but many are aimed at older readers. You know yourself and your child best, and you want to bring that knowledge to the library or bookstore, perhaps especially when looking at traditional fairy tale picture books, which are often full of romantic love, loss (parents, children, siblings), and/or violence. And it’s not just the text. Emotionally-resonant artwork is an amazing thing, but look through a book and make sure you’re ready for it.

  • Beauty and the Beast, by Marianna and Mercer Mayer. Lots of text, but the illustrations are so beautiful and powerful that they can still bring tears to my eyes.
  • East of the Sun and West of the Moon, translated from the Norwegian by George Webbe Dasent and illustrated by P. J. Lynch. Mistakes and journeys are made. There is a lot of text but also a shape-shifting polar bear, scary trolls, and the Lynch’s watercolor illustrations are magic.
  • Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, by John Steptoe. (This is based on a traditional tale, but as far as I can ascertain is largely one of Steptoe’s creation. I put it in this list because if has a lot of the same feel and themes as traditional picture book re-tellings.) The artwork is incredible, and the story is quietly complex and refreshingly portrays both girls as beautiful even though only one is kind.
  • Rapunzel, by Paul Zelinsky. Gorgeously and faithfully rendered. The artwork is in the style of the Italian Renaissance, warm and formal without being stiff. The story is here in all its brutality, and it’s not an easy story to read, but it’s full of hope and warmth and love at the same time. I especially enjoyed seeing Rapunzel’s faithful cat appear in page after page.
  • Yeh-Shen:  A Cinderella Story from China, by Ai-Ling Louie and Ed Young. This brings out a lot of the best of the Cinderella story. Hard work is rewarded and the friendship of Yeh-Shen and the magical fish is somehow very touching as well as, you know, magical.

Books about real princesses

  • The Redheaded Princess: A Novel, by Ann Rinaldi, this is a book about the early life of Queen Elizabeth I.
  • Girl in a Cage, by Jane Yolen, who has a gift for finding interesting female historical figures and bringing them to light. This is the story of Princess Marjori, daughter of Robert the Bruce, who was kept on display by King Edward Longshanks.

For older readers

  • A Little Princess, by France Hodgson Burnett, because Sarah Crewe is one of the most lovable characters ever to grace the pages of fiction, though part of me will always love cranky Mary Lennox best. I’m looking forward to Dot being old enough to enjoy this one. I also like the way that Sarah finds strength in her own ideas of what a princess is and does.
  • The Beggar Queen, by Lloyd Alexander, though I feel like even mentioning that this is a princess book is spoilery. This is the first in a series that ends up with a country ruled by a monarchy undergoing revolution and becoming a republic, but the female lead is resourceful and unforgettable.
  • Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine, was crazily popular among pre-teen readers for a reason. This Cinderella, cursed with obedience (can you imagine?), navigates the difficulties of boarding school, enchanted forests, and her own family, and befriends giants, elves, and fairies along the way to saving her prince.
  • Beauty, and Rose Daughter, both by Robin McKinley, are favorite comfort books of mine. Beauty features a protagonist who is a bookworm with a loyal and trusting horse that is the kind of horse every girl who loves horses wishes she could have. Rose Daughter is a different take on the story and equally as magical, with a strong emphasis on gardening and roses, and my favorite ever spin on the ending to this tale. McKinley writes amazing princesses. Also highly recommended are Spindle’s End, The Hero and the Crown, and Pegasus.

Anthologies:

I find these especially useful when I think of telling stories. These are great sources for inspiration, especially as I try to recognize how much my background is skewed toward Western stories.

  • Allyn & Bacon Anthology of Traditional Literature, edited by Judith V. Lechner
  • Beauties and Beasts, edited by my storytelling mentor, Betsy Hearne, who does amazing work in getting people to look at and think about children’s literature and traditional tales in thoughtful ways and who probably knows more about Beauty and the Beast than anyone in the world.
  • Not One Damsel in Distress, edited by Jane Yolen & illustrated by Susan Guevara
  • Mightier Than the Sword: World Folktales for Strong Boys, edited by Jane Yolen. This is a collection of tales that emphasize male protagonists who triumph with wit instead of physical strength or fighting, and is maybe out of place on a princess list. But this kind of story doesn’t get enough attention, and if Teddy were here, I’d want to read these to him.

I feel a bit better about princesses now. For one thing, a lot of these books treat the idea of what it means to be a princess in very nuanced ways, with an emphasis on responsibility, courage, and resourcefulness, all good traits to cultivate. Sarah Crewe’s bravery in the face of her cold and rat-infested attic is enough to make me remember the many positive things that princesses represent. As a more tentative consideration, I can’t help but think that, after getting access to some of the really gorgeous artwork and storytelling out there, maybe Dot will be somewhat inoculated to at least some of the ways princesses are used to sell things (and ideas) to girls. Maybe. Hopefully. We’ll see.

My new to-read list:

I found several interesting lists (many from library sites) of princess books, and as my own list is short on selections for kids Dot’s age, I’m going to be making some trips to the library this weekend to take a look at some of these:

Whew. That’s a lot of links. If you have a favorite princess book (or books), let me know!

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Ruffles

March 13, 2012

“I’m a princess,” my two-year-old proclaims as we sit in our booth at Unnamed Family-Friendly Restaurant where N has taken us for a special treat.

At this point, N and I exhibit vastly different reactions.

“Yes, you are!” he laughs, scooping her up in his arms. “You’re my princess. My beautiful princess!”

“Gahhhhh,” I say. “Mmph.”

(To be fair, my mouth was full of caramelized onions and cheeseburger at that particular moment.)

Darling Dot. Best beloved Dot. Dot of my heart. You are not a princess. You are the dragon with sunlit wings. You are the woodcutter’s daughter who saves the kingdom. You are a monkey mermaid. You are so much more wonderful than a fancy dress and a tiara. You are the unique result of millions of choices, loves, journeys and stories, and one of the things this means is that you don’t need an entry in Burke’s Peerage, or a castle, or a fairy godmother to be special.

Not that I wouldn’t give you a castle if I could. I love castles, too.

My girl has been going through something of a girly phase lately, gravitating toward dresses and watching Tangled over and over again until she recites some of its lines out of the blue at the dinner table, pretending to put flowers in her adorable wisps of hair. She likes ruffles and flounces and purses. And I’m torn. I want her to be able to enjoy her femininity, and if she were a two-year-old boy, this wouldn’t bother me at all. But being a girl in this day and age means that she is going to come up against being defined by her appearance in ways that a boy wouldn’t. It means that people will look at her in ways that make my skin crawl long before she is able to understand the blurry lines between femininity and sexuality, between peer approval and male approval and  sexism. I don’t want her to think that dresses and fancy hair are bad, but I don’t want her to think that they make people special, either. I don’t want her to emulate, adore, or despise women based on their money and appearance, or based on who they marry.

This is already something of a hard fight, partly because it’s often a fight against myself. I’m the one who let her watch a Disney princess movie, even if it is a movie where the princess hits her leading man over the head with a frying pan repeatedly. I’m the one who wants to brush her hair in the mornings and who tells her how nice her hair looks after I brush it. I constantly come up against how often my appearance was used as a carrot when I was growing up, and finding ways to do things differently is difficult, especially when we’re running late and she is flitting around in her diaper and telling me she doesn’t want to get dressed. I have yet to say anything like, “This purple shirt would make you look like Rapunzel,” but I’ve come close, and it makes my stomach flip in uncomfortable ways. I don’t want to hold her up in comparison to some other image of a girl, not ever, not even if it means resorting to clothing power struggles and/or bribery with strawberries.

We call her beautiful all the time, because she is. She is beautiful when her Grammy has smoothed her hair and put her into her holiday dress and fancy tights and shiny shoes, and she is beautiful when I pick her up from day care and she has mud all over her jacket and smudges of marker on her face and her hair sticks out like funny little flower petals. She is beautiful when she races across the park for the slides, and when she intentionally makes us laugh by making faces or animal sounds, and when she climbs into her car seat all by herself and when she fights getting into the car seat as if it is some sort of torture device. She is beautiful when she rubs spaghetti sauce or chili into her hair and when she makes herself a bubble beard in the bathtub. Her beauty is a light shining from within her and I’m so scared that she won’t know that that’s what we refer to when we tell her she’s beautiful. I don’t want her to fall prey to thinking of fame as beauty, or model-like-proportions as beauty, or a certain type of hair or clothing as beauty.

For now, if she asks to wear a dress, I let her wear a dress (often with pants underneath because it’s still cold outside). I look at flounced skorts in clothing catalogs and think, I’ll get her a couple when the weather warms up, and I cut flowers out of seed catalogs and tape them to hair clips so she can have flowers in her hair. I sit with her as she watches Tangled and talk to her about what makes Rapunzel so exciting (the nearly-prehensile hair really is pretty cool, as is the pet chameleon). I promise myself that this one movie doesn’t have to be a gateway drug into the princess culture. I find non-princesses who are also fun and have adventures to point to, and am grateful that we read as often as we do because books, even at this young age, give us glimpses of all different kinds of people and places. I make up stories about girls (and ducklings and reindeer and lambs) who are fast and brave and kind. I try not to freak out.

I remind myself that while I can’t recall ever hearing my own dad telling Mom she was beautiful (“You look nice,” was about as effusive as he ever got), N calls me beautiful, in front of Dot, every day. This is both incredibly cool – that I get to be a model of what is beautiful – and incredibly powerful and terrifying. She’s watching me to see some of what beauty is, and because of this I don’t want her to see me frowning at laugh lines or moping about my hair or sighing over my weight. Because of this I try to be kind and patient and fun and brave. I’m not always good at it, but she’s a forgiving audience so far.

I remind myself that, scary as it can be, it’s an amazing thing to be a girl.